Farm labour: strategies for reducing staffing headaches

With spring around the corner, farmers are facing one of the biggest challenges of running a successful operation: finding and retaining labour.

Having full- and part-time staff is becoming a necessity as the size of farms increases because of consolidation, but many producers find it increasingly difficult to fill positions.

Fortunately, there are strategies that can be implemented to make hiring and retaining labour easier. However, they might require new ways of approaching the issue.

Equipment operators are in high demand, which means the cost of farm labour is rising.

It can be difficult for agricultural producers to compete against the oil industry, which pays higher wages.

Farmers are also challenged by the fact that they need more employees in the spring and fall than in the summer and winter. It’s hard to find people who are content to work only six or eight months of the year, but that’s what farming operations need.

The equipment used on farms is adding to the labour challenge. Sophisticated technology requires a higher level of aptitude so it’s no longer possible to simply offer anyone the job.

In addition, retired farmers who once formed part of the seasonal labour pool aren’t interested in learning the new technologies required to operate expensive equipment.

Today’s producers need to view labour from a more corporate, human resource perspective.

Managing people hasn’t traditionally been high on farmers’ to-do list, but it needs to become job number one if they want to keep their operation profitable.

It’s critical to invest time and effort into figuring out how to be top-notch human resource managers, hire an HR manager for the farm or outsource to an HR management company.

Effective HR programs include planning for labour and personnel requirements, developing job descriptions, conducting interviews and reference checks and implementing appropriate employee management practices.

They also include developing an appropriate wage and benefit program.

It’s important to set a competitive wage, but it’s not realistic for producers to match the wages paid by more lucrative industries. Instead, focus on offering a fair wage and other benefits that improve quality of life for employees.

One potential solution to the wage issue is to offer employees some type of ownership, whether this is buying into the farm or receiving stock option rewards.

This can be a difficult move for producers who are used to owning their farms outright, many for generations, but it’s an excellent method of getting employees to stay with you.

It is much harder to walk away from a business you own, and the ability to earn profit is an incentive to maximize productivity.

Producers also need to look at new sources of labour as the traditional labour pool shrinks. Foreign workers are one option to be explored, and it should be investigated well ahead of when you’ll need people.

It requires time and effort to bring people into the country to work for you, but it can be an effective means of securing long-term employees with significant drive and determination.

Hiring custom operators can be an excellent option when it comes to seasonal labour needs.

These companies, based in Canada and the United States, start in February or March, run until November or December and don’t have summer slow downs, so they don’t have the same issues with labour retention.

Stuart Person, CPA, CA, is national director of primary producers with MNP’s agriculture services. Contact him at 855-667-3301 or

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